Can Digital Content Really Be Effective and Ethical at the Same time?

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This is a tale of two former students. Real people. Both majored in public relations, each finishing near the top of her class. One manages digital content for a medium-sized company with an aggressive marketing approach. The other, a few years younger, is a skilled digital content creator/strategist with a fast-growing agency. Both love their jobs.

Like most public relations professionals, both of my former students face intense pressure from employers and clients to produce results. But, in the digital era, that pressure is more challenging not only from day to day, but from hour to hour and even minute to minute. As Bill Bergman wrote last year in  Mediapost Agency Daily, “ … digital marketing is continually in motion; changing and evolving daily with small and unnoticeable technological advancements.”

With faster-than-lightning change and technology, sponsored content, aka native advertising, offers ecommerce communicators clever tools to meet these daunting challenges. But this digital tool also brings special temptations for PR practitioners, social media influencers and bloggers. Ann Willets, APR, described it well in PRSAY two years ago “ … communication in the Internet age is an uncontrollable beast.

Driven by tough new rulings from the Federal Trade Commission, digital PR professionals more than ever need to commit themselves and their employers to ethical practice and behavior, especially when it comes to full disclosure and transparency in sponsored content and earned placement. But, exactly how do you do that when the marketing VP or the client is breathing down your virtual neck for sales?

Fortunately, the PRSA Board of Directors and PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards published Disclosure and Transparency In Native Advertising and Sponsored Content in 2014, with examples of both transgressions and best practices, in the context of the PRSA Code of Ethics.

Both former students are strongly committed to ethical practice. Both are as concerned with disclosure and transparency as they are with the holy writ of copyright law. The content manager handles the pressure for results by creating and acquiring content that works, and making sure branding and other evidence of paid content is clear. The content creator/strategist simply insists on disclosure.

“Every instance I’ve had, it is very clearly marked sponsored and not editorial. I’m sure there are people out there that try to say its editorial, but any content we create is heavily branded and marked as sponsored by the third party. If it’s distributed to a third party, we usually have links taking people back to the content, and if something is republished on a third party site, there is a disclaimer for that as well.”

And what if the client insists on disguising or hiding the truth?

“We haven’t had that. If that’s ever the case, we suggest pitching the content to journalists instead of sponsoring the content.”

And that’s serious commitment to ethical and effective ecommerce content management and creation. You can do it, too. Make it right and make it effective.

George L. Johnson, APR, Fellow PRSA, retired after more than 40 years in corporate communications. He’s an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina and former chair of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.

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